I decided to look at the oldest drafts in my email, and apparently I wrote an essay-length review of 12:54 to Asgard after playing it. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it at the time, and I don’t remember much of the game itself (besides something with electricity and a heaven with clouds).
I decided to post it here so I can delete it from my drafts. I would definitely word things differently now but I thought it’d be more fun to post it unedited.
—Old review from 2016—
So I just finished 12:54 to Asgard by J Robinson Wheeler. It gave me a real mix of emotions as I played it, from frustration to joy.
I looked up some reviews of it, and I was shocked by the extreme negativity about this game. Wheeler waited 3 years to look at reviews of this game, and seems to consider it a big failure.
I think that the reviewer’s response to it was strongly colored by:
The venue it appear in (IFComp), and
The year it appeared (2010).
Because this game is an almost perfect (albeit buggy) late 90’s non-comp game.
In this game, you play a grumpy repairman who has to fix a leak in the roof of a soundstage. Things go bad, and you make it to an afterlife, complete with Death and Charon. You are taken to an odd blend of Greek, Norse, and Judeochristian mythology. By passing a series of challenges and symbolic acts, you can reach an ending.
I am a huge fan of mythology, and this game hit up my favorite stories. Many of the reviewers, though, were not fans of the mythological view, especially the Christian view. As a Mormon, I appreciate games like this that treat Christian topics with respect. However, this game in no way proselytizes or even favors Christianity (if anything, Norse seems to take charge), anymore than, say The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M. However, I can’t be upset with people who don’t like Christian themes, because I didn’t enjoy the anti-Judeochristian themes of The Chinese Room and The Tenth Plague.
Because this game was released in IFComp, every review I read was from someone who used the walkthrough. The walkthrough is nothing at all like the way you should play the game. In the opening scene, you have dozens of strange objects to interact with, but once you start poking around, it’s clear what you need to do to go forward. I had one hiccup that I peeked at the walkthrough for, then moved on, skipping dozens of lines in the walkthrough.
What people missed is that the game has a mechanism that both allows you and requires you to replay the opening scene over and over again, and that the game gives you strong hints on what you (eventually) need to do.
However, the game does get unfair later on, but in isolated spots. I would recommend getting as far as you can, peeking at the walkthrough, then going forward.
Here’s an example of stuff in the walkthrough unnecessary to moving forward:
The walkthrough tells you to take socks with you, give them to death instead of coins, then give the coins to a beggar, together with a blanket. You can just forget the socks, give death the coins, and just give the beggar the blanket, and still get the white cloud of success over the sapphire turnstile.
The NPCs are the weakest part of the game, and Wheeler admitted that he had to scrap some plans at the last minute. The main NPC responds to almost nothing, and I couldn’t figure out why she was there. The other NPCs only respond minimally.
That’s why I mentioned the year. In 2010, bad NPCs are almost unforgivable. But in the late 90’s, these NPCs would have been acceptable, although certainly not cutting edge.
The game is intricate and beautiful, but has numerous issues. None really affected my enjoyment of the game, though. For instance, some event text gets repeated after the event; some items can be in your inventory with the game text suggesting it isn’t; and some code text got printed for me.
I feel like Wheeler could have polished this really well, but from the reviews, it seems like the universe hated this game.
To me, this game is in the same category as So Far and Losing Your Grip, a beautiful old-school puzzlefest that is too hard for most people, but interesting enough to keep you moving.
If J Robinson Wheeler ever reads this, I just want to say that I loved this game (and ASCII and the Argonauts, First Things First, and Being Andrew Plotkin), and that I hope that one day you have time to go back and tweak the bugs, because it’s a real keeper. I always post about really good games, but I’ve never seen such a difference between the game quality and the reaction to it.
—End of old review—